ELIZABETHTON — It was all Unaka. Then it was all Cloudland.
And with 39 seconds left, it was finally the game most people expected.
The Rangers held on for dear victory, earning a 64-59 decision Tuesday night at Snavely Gymnasium to forge a tie for first place in the Watauga Valley Conference.
“Cloudland has beaten us in the past, and they knocked us out at the buzzer,” said Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger, referring to the Highlanders' win in last year's Region 1-A semifinals. “These kids remember those things, and they came out with something to prove.”
Unaka improved to 5-2 in league play and 13-9 overall while Cloudland fell to 5-2, 18-9. The Rangers close their league schedule at home against University High on Friday while Cloudland plays host to Hampton.
In the girls' game, Cloudland got double-doubles from Brooke Rhodes and Courtney Wilson and rolled to a 49-35 victory over the Lady Rangers.
In the first half of the boys' game, it was a dazzling display of Unaka at its best. The Rangers were extraordinarily tough on defense, and Cloudland rarely got a good look.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, the Rangers knocked down shot after shot. The result was a 40-18 lead that had the standing-room-only crowd rocking and roaring.
“We took smart shots,” said Dugger. “Cloudland, if they don't turn you over, they want you to take quick transition shots. And then if they get the rebound, they treat it like a turnover.
“Their press didn't really bother us. Our game plan was to get to the rim.”
However — just like the recent Super Bowl — a break in the action changed everything. Cloudland, minus an injured Devin Whitehead, rediscovered itself in the locker room — just like Dugger expected.
“I looked the players in the face and I said, 'Get ready for the biggest punch in the face you've ever seen since you've been in high school,' ” said Dugger. “There are no easy wins in this league.”
Spencer Nave, who finished with 15 points, said the Rangers just kept taking the Highlanders' punches.
“They are good team, and they hit shots,” said Nave. “They hit a lot of them in the second half. But you've just got to play through that stuff.
“We just came together as a team. We are family. That's what you've got to be in a tight game. You've got to be brothers. We are brothers from the coaching staff to the last player on the bench.”
Cloudland jumped out with a 10-3 spurt to make it interesting. Then Unaka pretty much maintained a double-digit lead until midway through the fourth quarter.
However, when Cloudland's Dylan McClellan rained down a 3-pointer, it was 56-50 with 1:55 left in the game. Zac Potter followed with a quick bucket after a steal to make it 56-52.
Danny Bales responded in transition for Unaka before Mason Carnett knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 58-54.
Nave dropped in a free throw, but Potter answered with a bucket and it was 59-56 with 1:01 to go. Nave then hit two more free throws before Potter made a twisty-leaner 3-swish, cutting Unaka's edge to 61-59 with 39 seconds remaining.
Billy Bales was fouled on the in-bounds pass and made both free throws. Then Cloudland missed a trio of opportunities to reduce the deficit, and Billy Bales sealed the win with a free throw with 6.5 seconds remaining.
Logan Carrier added 15 points for the Rangers, hitting three treys — including a very important 3-hammer from the corner pocket with 3:19 remaining to restore a 10-point lead. Danny Bales added 12 points while Billy Bales finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Cloudland got 18 points and six rebounds from McClellan while Potter had 16 points — all in the second half — and eight rebounds. Taylor Whitehead totaled 12 points and nine rebounds.
Cloudland (girls) 49
After struggling with a feisty Unaka bunch for three quarters, the Lady Highlanders opened the fourth quarter by scoring the first nine points — creating a 43-29 lead and putting the game away.
Rhodes was dominant in the paint, finishing with 18 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Wilson was also a force, totaling 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Unaka trailed just 23-20 at the break and was still within 34-29 heading into the fourth quarter. The Lady Rangers were led by Jessie Matheson with eight points.
Brandi Ensor added seven points and 10 rebounds.